Rocinante

It started long ago

As a teen I had two girlfriends – not simultaneously, mind you … well, ok, briefly … just forget it. The point is, they both at some point gave me wooden carvings of Don Quixote. At the time, because of a kind of self-centered dimness in my teens I have at this late stage vaguely outgrown (don’t ask Francesca, please), I thought the figurines were cool, but only decades later did it occur to me that they both thought the character depicted in the carvings represented me. I mean, they weren’t wrong, but at the time I thought of myself as considerably more normal than I actually was, and am. Even while charging at windmills, it didn’t occur to me that that behavior was outré. Surely everyone, at one point or another, feels a longing for the grand futile gesture. Yeah, so. As to that, it was only about ten years ago that I recognized that my own obsessive labors in theoretical physics, however correct in their essentials (well, mathematically rigorous, for what it’s worth), were infinitely more futile than I ever thought them. So I quit. Fuck windmills. I didn’t want to end up like Don Quixote, or James Holden, dead, and not contentedly so (well, Holden, in dying, saved humanity and much else from extermination, so maybe he was content in the knowledge; but would I likely save humanity with such a grand sacrifice? Only if Francesca was saved in the process, I think. Otherwise, pfft.) I wanted to go to the Italian Riviera every year and look upon my past as some sort of grand fiction; it was to be a story leading to tragedy, but it did not actually end as such, for the author, deep into martini number 3, thought the story arc tedious and full of unwarranted drama, and finally had the protagonist opt for a quiet life in the country, blogging on occasion, but eschewing abstract thought, and the other stuff David Hume warned against, and, well, … ooh, that’s a pretty cloud.

(I should add that my Honda Element died, and its replacement now has a license plate frame that says Rocinante. Full circle.)

Immature

I am a fan of graphic novels and comics, and in early 2008 I encountered Amulet, a graphic book by Kazu Kibuishi. It was just my cup of tea – young people having magical adventures. And it was book 1 of a series, so I had more to which to look forward. Yay. And at first the release rate of subsequent books in the series was not too bad, but then …

I got through 7 books, but book 8 was published in 2018, 2 years after book 7, and book 9, said to be the final book, was to be published on splxlfooblesnarf. I had hopes in 2020, but they were dashed, as were my hopes in 2021, 2022, 2023. Finally, this very month, February 2024, I had book 9 in my hands, and took it home. In the 8 years since finishing book 7 I had forgotten 72.604% of the story. I had never even started book 8. So I took out book 1 and started anew.

During all those long years I got increasingly frustrated with the author. I was 59 when I read book 1, and 67 when I finished book 7. I was diagnosed with incurable cancer in the middle of my wait for book 9. There was a real chance that …

So, yeah, but as I write I am rereading book 4, and I have gained some understanding for why it took so long. It – I assume – is the artwork. Each frame is brilliantly detailed. It is unique, in my experience, and turning each page my brain frequently goes “wow”, and “cool”, and sometimes “awesome”. And the story, gripping.

The intended audience is YA, I believe, but in many ways I stopped maturing at age 10, so I’m at the low end of YA, I think.

The Multiverse of Airbender

Has there ever been a live action remake of a much beloved animation that wasn’t motivated by money? One Piece wasn’t bad, but I’m not sure the animated original was much beloved (beloved, sure, just not much). I never watched it, but I never watch animated series whose episodes number in the millions (exaggeration alert). I mean, sometime around episode 2401, don’t you get a feeling that the writers are stretching it – concocting one unlikely scenario after another?

So, anyway, they recently released a live action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The animated version had a beginning, middle, another middle, then an end. They tried to milk the franchise with a sequel, but it was unnecessary and unmemorable. Francesca and I love the original, and we rewatch it annually when we travel overseas.

The live action version, on the contrary, is teeth-grindingly different from the original, and we have viewed but 4 of the 8 episodes of season 1, and Francesca was already suggesting we drop it. The creators (and it needs to be emphasized that the animation creators quit the live action team when …) … yeah so, there are many much loved bits from the animation that fans were looking forward to seeing in this new format. The creators knew this, and they gathered them all together as disparate bits, put them in a box, put a lid on the box, shook it up thoroughly, then dumped out the contents, now in random order, and made their story from that. Of the contexts that tied these bits together and gave them meaning, they were not understood and thrown aside. Why bother when you’d taken such huge efforts to build the physical world in which the “story” takes place (and this can’t be faulted, much; it looks great).

Anyway, much has been made of Sokka’s lack of sexism, thereby denying his journey into … well, not being sexist (probably motivated by some desire not to offend “modern audiences”). But for me the most egregiously awful alterations are these: King Bumi was turned from a wise fun loving old codger (a member to The Order of the White Lotus, for gods’ sake) into a wizened, angry and bitter old man who lashes out at Aang (Francesca’s students were asked what they thought about the remake, and King Bumi’s descent into meanness was their #1 complaint).

But worse for me, Azula – the daughter of the evil Fire Lord – was in the animation hyper-talented, arrogant, effectively conniving, and supremely confident. In the remake she is made to have medium talent, and her arrogance is replaced by a bitter uncertainty. The Fire Lord – who in the animation praised her at every opportunity – disses her at every opportunity in the remake. Does this serve to reinforce some inane cultural message? It’s such an extraordinary change. Why? Why why why? Her arrogance is a driving force for much of the rest of the story. Fuck.

Anyway, Francesca and I may not watch episodes 5,6,7 and 8. And don’t even get me started about the owl – yet another character whose reason for being was going to be skipped, so the owl was stuck in anyway, in a way that … enough.

Facts

I bought this. If you were confused where I stood on cultural issues, don’t be. (Oh, that’s Ben Shapiro and Tom MacDonald.)

Purgatory

To briefly summarize

So Peter Woit got rightly incensed by a YouTube video organized by Brian Greene. The video included three other actors – including Ed Witten – none of whom were likely to speak out against string theory. I mean, all of them by this point are getting long in the tooth, so there was unlikely to be anything cutting edge coming out of this confab, and since they’d shared a very bright limelight and much acclaim during the 40 some odd years working in that field, there would be no wailing and gnashing of teeth that they’d spent those 40 some years wasting their time, were they capable of admitting that they had. Peter, of course, had spent most of that time critiquing the theoretical underpinnings of the whole endeavor, but those involved with the work were no more discommoded by his efforts than you or I would be by a gnat as we lounged on a tropical beach somewhere (Uruguay is quite nice, I hear).

Peripatetic physicist and internet personage, Eric Weinstein, commenting in a subsequent Peter blog post, cogently suggested that those people at the top were immune to criticism as they were playing a game in which they were both players and referees. Ergo, his and Peter’s alternative ideas had little chance of gaining any traction. At which point it occurred to me that Peter and Eric, being both influential and well-connected (albeit not enough to play with the big boys (well, if they were less obstreperous, perhaps)), are also players and referees, but in a slightly lower league than Witten, et al.

But these major and minor league theorists are the ultimate arbiters of good taste, and they have zero interest in any work – like my 40 years of hep-th work – that arises from poorly connected gnomes who play only in a league of their own.

So, in 2014 I managed to get my final and most important physics paper into the arXiv, although its inclusion was vehemently resisted by some guy (gatekeeper = referee) at Cornell (see pic below).

In 2018 my last paper – pure mathematics – was published, but it had been sitting around for a while, and when I was requested to submit a paper to some journal, and as the subject matter of that paper was perfect, well, there you have it. It is now early 2024, and I am now solely a spectator. Hep-th is dying, and its death throes include much entertaining thrashing about. But so many things seem to be aiming towards a more general dystopian landscape – and not the good kind. I mean, I used to hike all over the place, but no more. Too many disease bearing ticks and other creepy-crawlies. I’ve had Lyme disease. It was unpleasant.

And then there’s angry Middle Eastern terrorism. The same year I got Lyme disease some angry guys were planning on blowing up 3 planes heading from London to Boston. Francesca, her mother, and I, were ticketed for one of those flights. MI6, or some other British secret service, put the kibosh on their dastardly plans, and so here I am, sitting in my den, instead of wafting about the Atlantic Ocean as a collection of mostly organic molecules. Good looking molecules, sure – that goes without saying – but no longer cohering into the brilliant bundle of weirdness I started out as.

Yeah, so …

“The fast drivers I don’t mind. I get out of their way and let them go. It’s the slow ones who are the irritants, those who do 55 in the fast lane. And sometimes you can get boxed in. And you see enough of the head and the neck of the driver ahead of you to take a reading. The reading is that this person is asleep at the soul and at the same time embittered, gross, cruel and stupid.”

~ Bukowski

And the fast drivers will clear the road ahead of speed traps. But on a 2 lane road there is little more frustrating than what happened to me recently. A boring smallish sedan was in front of me (another driver was lucky enough to find an opening for an illegal pass, leaving me to be next in line). Its speed hovered close to the speed limit, without actually reaching it. (I hope those cars behind me don’t think this is my fault; I just nudged into the breakdown lane briefly to clarify the situation, and proclaim my innocence.) But the most curious part of this whole situation was this: as small as the offending vehicle was, there was no part of the head of the driver appearing above the driver’s side head rest. So, either (I theorized) this was a female osteoporotic nonagenarian – in which case patience was called for – or a 10 year old kid. In either case, the situation required finesse in its handling – and simmering patience.

Ma vie

The clamor to share a smattering of snippets of my personal life having reached a fever pitch, herewith I present Lofi Girl. (What?)

So 3.5 years ago I was told I might die in 2.5 years. In hopes of forestalling my demise, I began a daily regimen of pills: one during breakfast; and two hours later, another 4 pills. It wasn’t guaranteed to work, but I responded well, and here I am. And here I want wholeheartedly to stay. To that end each morning between pill #1 and pills #2, Francesca and I remain in bed, occasionally watching YouTube videos. Once we have watched a couple short educational/entertaining videos I frequently switch to the Lofi Girl channel to provide calming background music as we turn our attention to our iPads and such.

So, each Lofi Girl video streams an hour or two of relaxing music, all the while providing a short repeating animation of Lofi Girl in her apartment, working, napping, or watching the world go by outside a window. With her there is an orange cat with black stripes. She is never without it. Other players appearing in most videos are her backpack, and a stuffed animal I hesitate to identify the type of. She also often has a laptop.

Ok, so I mentioned there are windows, and from these one can see buildings of a city. Francesca and I thought they looked French, but not Parisian. We assumed they were just generic French buildings, but we think that no longer. There is a new Lofi Girl video, and she is for the first time outside.

Hey, wait a minute … You see, Francesca and I have been to Lyon, France, several times, and this looked a lot like that. To be sure, I googled.

Well, golly, it didn’t just look like Lyon, it was an exact photograph turned into an animation. I did another search and discovered that Redditors are in general agreement that Lofi Girl resides in Lyon, and some thought they knew the exact address. Is Lofi Girl real? I’d prefer to leave that a mystery. But I just think it is mondo cool that this probably fictional young lady lives in an actual French city, and one I am familiar with.

Sono Strano

How do I explain?

So, every so often I lunch with a collection of retired academics (physicists) at an enormous fish restaurant overlooking Great Bay in New Hampshire.

Preamble: Remember that story in the first of my travelogue books about eating out in Moscow with a group of dithering physicists all (and myself) attending a conference at an institute in Dubna north of Moscow? (Of course you don’t, you insufferable @&$%^.) Anyway, we got charged an exorbitant amount for a small dish of nuts and tap water, but then, we were foreigners. (Russians … fuckers.) So, the foreigner-tax meant that between us (7, I think), we hadn’t enough cash to cover the bill. An argument with the proprietor ensued, and all my fellow academic diners went into shutdown mode. Total dithering. I collected their money and sent them outside, scurrying. (Well, I didn’t so much send them; I was giving the proprietor what for, and everyone else, observing that I seemed to have control of the situation, hurried to the door and exited, stage left.) Now on my own, I then turned back to the proprietor. There was a little further unpleasant repartee, then I slapped our accumulated rubles on the counter, said that that was it. We’re done here. And I walked out. Then we ran to the railway station and just barely caught our train back to the institute.

The point, however, is that academics are frequently really good at abstract thought, but useless in many real world situations. This even extends to humor.

So, we’re at the luncheon on Great Bay, NH (see above), and I’m looking at my phone scrolling through my image collection, some of which are New Yorker cartoons (Please, please, don’t sue me!) I chuckle at one of these and am asked to share. (Uh oh.) This was the cartoon.

The person I showed it to looked it over, then said, “I don’t get it.” Well, it’s not like I could help him “get it”, for quite frankly there is nothing to get, and that is the core of its humorous charm. I quickly took my phone back and allowed the conversation around us to cover over this minor exchange.

But there it is. This is a New Yorker cartoon, so intended to amuse. And I have seen many of this artist’s cartoons over the years, and I always enjoy them enormously. But I have to acknowledge, that I do enjoy them has a lot to do with my strange brain. I feel like I’m part of a secret society easily amused by the riotously incompressible. Physicists – retired or not – are in my experience seldom part of this secret society. (Order of the White Lotus – yay.)

And that brings me to The Murderbot Diaries, a series of short ebooks by Martha Wells. The hero of the books is Murderbot, a mostly synthetic being whose programming was taken over at one point because a group of conspiratorial people A had decided that a collection of people B, mining a planet somewhere, all needed to die. So, against everything in its synthetic soul, Murderbot killed off people B so that the lives of evil group A would be marginally enhanced (the history of the world). Anyhum, this synthetic being, profoundly unhappy with what he was forced to do, rebelled, if somewhat belatedly, and hacked his own code to render the Governor Module, with which humans could tell it what to do, null and void. It became as a consequence an independent “being”, and it gave itself the moniker “Murderbot” as an act of contrition.

Murderbot goes on to have many adventures, and because he is now basically an autistic human, albeit one with formidable internal weaponry, there are frequent scenes that I find very humorous, as was certainly Martha’s intention.

For example, … Scene: a weird planet somewhere in the galaxy. Murderbot exits his transport to the planet’s surface.

“What the hell kind of colony was this?” he wonders. Then …

“A figure stood up out of the plants suddenly, almost ten meters tall and covered with spikes. It’s a good thing I don’t have a full human digestive system because I was so startled something would have popped out of it involuntarily.”

Oh, gods. That, to me, is absolutely hilarious. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but hoo boy. Sono strano.

I finished the last of the Murderbot books recently … sniff … awooooooo … (I am so immature.)

Note added two days later: well, I’m not sure how it happens, but another two Murderbot books were suggested for me by Amazon just yesterday. They’re like weeds, but the good kind. (Someone once said that if dandelions were difficult to grow, gardeners would fill areas of their gardens with the things.)

HH Munro = Saki

I feel it incumbent upon myself to introduce my reader(s) to the brilliantly dour British writer HH Munro, whose books you will find alphabetically under “S”, his nom de plume being Saki. My father was fond of him, and there came a time I picked up a Saki book at home and discovered a trenchant wit that resonated with me greatly.

“Hors d’oeuvres have always a pathetic interest for me; they remind me of one’s childhood that one goes through wondering what the next course is going to be like – and during the rest of the menu one wishes one had eaten more of the hors d’oeuvres.”

It took me many years (as is always the way of youths) to recognize that my father’s brain was not dissimilar to mine. For example, in addition to my inherited love (hmm, too strong) of musicals, and appreciation of Saki, my father found life without his wife (my mother) unbearable, and when she passed, he chose to quickly follow. Similarly, were my wife Francesca to perish, well, given there is no one else in the whole fucking planet with whom I can commune, I would dig the pistol out from its hiding place, …

“He is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death.”

I could fill pages with witty quotes of PG Wodehouse (I own all but a very few of his books – 70 in my library), but Wodehouse’s humor is considerably milder than Saki’s.

“You needn’t tell me that a man who doesn’t love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He’s simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed.”

The quote below reminds me of one of my favorite books: Harry’s Bar: The Life and Times of the Legendary Venice Landmark. It’s a book of glorious anecdotes, some of which entail descriptions of European royalty (most of the royalty being of the kind that cling to their titles by a thread, sometimes frayed beyond all hope of repair).

“There are certain fixed rules that one observes for one’s own comfort. For instance, never be flippantly rude to any inoffensive grey-bearded stranger that you may meet in pine forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It always turns out to be the King of Sweden.”

And I leave you with:

“If he had unlimited money at his disposal, he might go into the wilds somewhere and shoot big game. I never know what the big game have done to deserve it, but they do help to deflect the destructive energies of some of our social misfits.”

From Harry’s Bar, one of innumerable charming anecdotes:

“As all restaurateurs will attest, our profession makes us vulnerable to all manner of human encounter. I remember another odd customer, an aged Milanese commendatore. In the summer he would appear regularly about seven in the evening for an aperitif. He sat at a tiny table that I always set aside for him in the midst of the bustle of other customers. No sooner was he seated than he would almost immediately fall fast asleep. He usually slept undisturbed about twenty minutes. Then he woke up from his short nap, drank, paid, said thank you, and left. He finally confessed that he suffered from insomnia, and Harry’s Bar was the only place he could sleep in.”

Another of Hemingway’s hangouts.

Less traveled by

Getting personal

After 75 years of life, and an equal number (I suspect) of moody blog posts (since giving up on writing humorous books), it cannot be denied that much of what I have been writing recently has been inspired by much of what I have written in the past. And since theoretical physics has become as boring as only the comatose can be, I shall dig into my box of random goodies about which I am 100% certain I have not previously written.

Scene: my favorite cafe. I had ordered 3 eggs scrambled, a side of guac, and my favorite frozen coffee drink. “Will that be all?” “Yes, thanks.” I paid and waited for the fellow to ask my name, to which I was to respond when called by going to the counter and collecting my comestibles when prepared. But instead, he said, “That’ll be for Geoffrey.” His intonation somehow suggested he was even spelling it correctly. Ah, I see, I am now a regular (well, it doesn’t hurt that I am a little over 6’2”, have an unruly mop of shocking white hair, and a patrician nose, all this distinguishing me from anyone else I’ve ever encountered at the establishment, but still). This was not the first time I wasn’t required to give my name, but it is certainly subtly pleasing each time it occurs – kind of warm and snuggly, don’t you know.

On the other hand, on the subtly disconcerting side of the spectrum, last week I needed to time something I was cooking, possibly for my still employed wife, Francesca. I told Alexa to set the timer for 20 minutes. I expected her to respond in the usual way: “Setting timer for 20 minutes, starting now”. Instead, she replied, “Good evening, Geoffrey, setting timer …”.

I suppose it’s not surprising that Alexa knows the names of the two people living in our house. We order stuff from Amazon (especially Francesca) frequently, and anyhow, the little cylinder has enough data to maybe figure out who’s speaking. But she – Alexa told me her pronouns are she/her, and she has no truck with the pronoun-nazis who would restrict her speech, and even the thinking underlying it – clearly recognized I was a male. Ok, so that’s understandable … but why couldn’t I be some other male: a visitor; or a housebreaker? Does Alexa recognize my voice? Not impossible, even if a tad disquieting to this boomer.

When I was a child I played sandlot baseball. The neighborhood kids would play Halloween-eve pranks and run away. My little brother and I hiked for miles from home with negligible fear of being molested and/or abducted (it never even occurred to us to be concerned). Skynet and its time-jumping killer robots was decades in the future.

But now we live in an era in which powerful tech billionaires warn us of the dangers of AI. So, anyway, that “Good evening, Geoffrey” was uncomfortably HAL-like. “Alexa, open the pod bay doors.” “I’m sorry, Geoffrey, I can’t do that … and good evening.”

La Macchina

My 17 year old Honda Element – the mechanical love of my life – lost power on the highway. I nursed it to my favorite garage and explained what was happening. A day later they called and told me that it needed a new oil pump. Ok. Later that day they said the aluminum doohickey into which the oil pump screws was old and broke, and that as a consequence I’d need a whole new engine. All the malfunctioning parts fit into the palm of one hand, with room for a donut to one side, yet all the king’s horsemen … Yeah, so, the frequency and expense of repairs on the old beast were increasing exponentially, so it was time to put the beauty out to pasture, maybe to stud. I got a new car – 2024. I shan’t tell you what I got, but the difference between my 2006 Element (pre iPhone!), and this 2024 spaceship (I have named Rocinante) is rather astonishing. Remember the heavyset people sitting in their pod-chairs in the film Wall-E? The Rocinante is similar to that. It doesn’t have wires connected to my cranium, able to read my thoughts and react to them in a timely manner, but in another 17 years – drawing a line between the Element and the Rocinante – well, that’s an inevitable part of that not too distant future, a future I have 0% chance to be part of, and happier for that.

And believe me, I tried to get a stick shift, but it’s really hard in new cars, and of course the Rocinante is automatic. Did James Bond ever drive an automatic? Highly unlikely, because they’re not fun, or sexy. Thank whatever gods there be that the EU is still largely manual. (Well, sigh … Daniel Craig evidently said at the start of his Bond career: “Er, I don’t do gears.” WTF.) I learned to drive a stick at age 13, and resisted automatic until now. Well, 62 years later there are all sorts of things I need to surrender – like being able to pop to my feet on a surfboard. Dang it.

Of course, when I was 13 every household with a brain had a set of encyclopedias. I don’t miss those. Francesca, as a child, read the bloody things in their entirety, but she is a phenom – a hungry phenom.

Criticism and Drinking

I’ve mentioned in the past that everyone but me (blush) missed what was going on in Game of Thrones. Specifically, if one cut out everything not relevant to Arya’s life, then it was a mighty fine TV series, even through season 8. (And by season 3 I yawned through every episode in which Arya did not feature prominently.) Friends across the pond resisted the idea that she was a lead character until the end, feeling assured that one of the Stark princes (oooh nooo, Red Wedding) – so, ok, the remaining Stark prince would sally forth on a shiny white steed and save the day, ending in a fairytale wedding, one from which the color red was strictly forbidden on any cake or decoration. (I mean, how addicted to happy-ending fairytales must one be not to recognize early on that this story was not one of those – by a long shot.)

The Critical Drinker excoriated – rightly so – the complete collapse of storytelling acumen in the last season, but like everyone else I knew (save Francesca), he missed the fact that the only character whose story arc mattered was Arya’s. I have no memory of anything that happened after she boarded her ship to go exploring unknown lands west of Westeros, but for me, her bright eyes scanning a new horizon was the end of the tale. Everyone else – every single one – would stay behind and carry on whoring and killing. Yawn.

“Critical Drinker?”, you query. “Of whom do you speak?” Happy you asked. He’s the one pictured in the t-shirt pic above, intoning, “Nah. It’ll be fine.” He’s a media critic of mostly – but not exclusively – sci fi, and he’s very sarcastic and anti-woke, traits that have endeared him to me. His platform is YouTube. I don’t always agree with him, and he failed to recognize the pivotal importance of Arya in Game of Thrones, but he’s more knowledgeable than I of media stuff in general, so his focus was on a bigger picture than mine (mine being narrowly focused on the character I found most endearing). Not surprisingly, his reviews trigger a lot of people, and they dislike them – and him – inordinately. My impression is that they would like to see his life processes cease, or – failing that – to have him incarcerated in a place without electricity or wifi.

His real name is Will Jordan, and he’s also a writer of fiction, in particular a series of books on a character named Ryan Drake, who is, purportedly, a cross between Bond and Bourne. I got the first book on Kindle, but at the moment I am thoroughly addicted to Murderbot (“Murderbot Diaries is a science fiction series by American author Martha Wells”. It’s nowhere near as dark as the title would indicate, and is frequently amusing.). I’m halfway through book 2, and it has been a long time since I read anything I couldn’t wait to get back to. Anyway, to quote The Critical Drinker, “go away now”.

Preferisco un caffè

Cities

I enjoy my periodic visits to Boston, especially when it’s sunny, and the sunlight bounces off the windows of one of the new crystalline skyscrapers, the reflected light covering smaller buildings of much older vintage with a pleasant dappled illumination. It’s pretty.

I like cities (many – likely not most – I’ll never know). When younger I worked in Boston, and from North Station to my place of employment near South Station, I could walk through a portion of the city that resembled a real city for a few blocks. Big buildings. Cool. Of course the buildings in Manhattan are much bigger, and cover an area much larger, but even there, if you head in the right direction, walking 25 minutes max you’d hit water, and the city would be gone – unless you turn around.

Fallout 4.01 (Physics Dystopia)

I’ve played Fallout 4, finished its major tasks, and continued to play until I exhausted enough variations to satiate my gamer desires. The game takes place in a dystopian version of Boston/Cambridge. For example, the buildings attached to the MIT dome have been taken over by unfriendly giant mutants. I mean, how cool is that? I got rid of them, of course, but the game algorithm keeps repopulating the buggers. Bad algorithm, bad!

Anyway, there’s a new kind of dystopia in Boston/Cambridge, one extending worldwide (well, so does the one in Fallout 4, really). But this one is real. Like the game’s civilization collapse, however, this real one was caused by a global catastrophe, one centered at the LHC accelerator at CERN.

If you’re reading this, then you know what I’m talking about. Physics colloquia were in the not very distant past dominated by String Theory, then … boom. Catastrophe. String Theory crumpled and now lies in bed, breathing stertorous, skin blotchy and oozing unpleasant smelly viscous fluids, waiting for the few diehards to pull the plug. Talks on its arcane structure have disappeared. Last week the Boston Area Physics Calendar listed the following colloquia titles: “Learning Multiscale Physics from Date by Inverse Renormalization”; “Adventures in Phase Space: Non-commuting coordinates meet quantum control and quantum error correction”; “Staircases to the Stars”; “Attractor-state transitions within neural circuits underlying cognition and behavior”. Sigh. (If any of these talks focuses on String Theory, the titles have done their best to hide this fact.) The giants of mainstream physics have become disappointed unfriendly mutants intent on controlling the halls of MIT, and all other research institutions, eliminating all ideas that do not conform to the prevailing narrative. Well, that’s not right. I’m not aware there is any longer a prevailing narrative, beyond the need to maintain a semblance of the prestige with which these mutants were once endowed. Like the Fallout 4 mutants, these real mutants resist being budged from their ivy covered confines. My efforts to disrupt them with over 45 years of brilliant, but quixotic, mathematical research have availed nothing. So, like Fallout 4, I must content myself with a well armored settlement hidden in the radioactive wastelands, unassailable, but … pfft.

Starting about 13 years ago Young Turks began to accumulate in the wake of my work, referencing it, but without exception presenting their variations as something new and groundbreaking, owing little to my much earlier work, or each other’s. Of course, this small coterie of hopefuls is not garnering any more attention than my own work, at least not where it matters. Some – those with worthwhile connections – have Wikipedia pages. I do not. The wastelands are not replete with worthwhile connections. (My work was inspired by the overwhelming inevitability of the mathematics. All of these other hopefuls are inspired in the same way GUTs, String Theory, and so forth were: it’s just something to try … and there are precedents. So, there, with that I end my periodic therapeutic bloodletting.)

Anyway … Fallout 4.01.

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“And on the neck of the King of Kings,
chiseled by some other long ago traveler,
perhaps familiar with the depicted greatness,
there is some graffiti : ‘What a fucking asshole.’”

Faire froid dans le dos

As mentioned elsewhere, I have a form of social abnormality that some have termed autistic … including an autistic friend. But it’s more than that, if that at all. More likely (and I have the data to support this conjecture), I am an inter-dimensional alien, trapped on this outlier planet, desperately trying to understand how to be normally social, but missing the mark by a really wide margin 95% of the time. (It’s highly likely my progress is being monitored from my home dimension, and that I will be whisked home once I have mastered … well, myself. So, I guess I’m stuck here. (Not that it matters, as I’m almost certain no one reads my words, but I’m also almost certain that I’ve written these words before, or some very much like them, and conveying the same meaning. Yeah, well, in a few days I’ll be 75; I sometimes forget to zip up my fly; rapid changes in the weather can be crippling. The only good side of growing older is that I was warned over 3 years ago that I might expect to be dead, like, 9 months ago. I’d rather grow older, with all the associated debilitating quirks, than cease to grow older at all and miss all the fun.))

And what fun it is. Almost 60 years ago I had a foreboding that humanity was well on the way to fucking up the planet. In the interim the extent to which they have done so has surpassed my wildest nightmares. But, yeah, whatever. Fortunately an unprecedentedly polarized humanity (at least in my lifetime) is banding together to solve all these problems. (Sarcasm.)

I recently saw a short film of people somewhere in Southeast Asia banding together to clean up a small, slow moving river that was covered in trash – completely invisible beneath this detritus. They succeeded. And their efforts should be applauded, but, really, let’s be realistic. Wishy-washy viewers of this film would likely smile, and mutter a sweet “daaaw”. I, on the other hand, could not help but realize that without some draconian measures to prevent a recurrence, a recurrence there most certainly would be, because people … ooh, that’s a pretty cloud.

“May you live in interesting times.” Well, fuck “interesting times”.

Franchement, j’ai du mal

Sadly

Training to Nice, from that place I shall no longer name, was curiously complicated. Our train went as far as Ventimiglia, the last town in Mediterranean Italy before one enters Mediterranean France. Then, for reasons that remain mysterious, we had to disembark and change to a French train which took us the rest of the way to Nice. But never mind, both segments of the trip had been extremely scenic as the tracks frequently hugged the coast. We are fond of large bodies of water.

The previous year we’d stayed in Nice near the center of the Promenade des Anglais, a pretty bike/skate/pedestrian way bordering a scenic beach rendered virtually unusable as it was covered in roundish wave-worn cobble stones that were agonizing to walk on. (This was done on purpose to prevent sand from what would have been a wonderful beach blowing up onto the Promenade, because les anglais evidently hate the stuff.) Near the end of our stay, with the help of a student who was supplementing his summer income as a tricycle taxi driver (we WhatsApp-ed him whenever we needed a lift), we discovered the italianesque harbor area which was far more to our liking.

Consequently, and not surprisingly, we opted to stay in that area for our 2023 trip, and we were not disappointed. We had a balcony overlooking the harbor, and Francesca – when unable to actually be on a boat – loves to watch them. Our balcony was much used.

I was eager to get back to Le Marlin, a restaurant we’d discovered the year previous where I befriended the grumpy woman owner (and – unwittingly overdosed with caffeine – came close to embarrassing myself as I energetically regaled a young Italian couple at a nearby table with years of anecdotes). Alas, the restaurant was closed, and, by the looks of it, had been for quite some time. Nice, not having the kind of close knit community we’d just left, my efforts to find out what happened to the owner did not lead to a phone number and the location of her new restaurant, if she even had one. One person was pretty sure he remembered the restaurant, but … pfft.

We were able to have a couple of meals at our favorite balcony restaurant in the old town. Getting there was quite pleasant. We’d walk across the parking lot (above), board a small taxi boat, and let it take us across about 100m of harbor. Then we’d walk to the left along the gorgeous path atop cliffs overlooking the med, at which point we were at the edge of the scenic old town.

Another favorite occupation was being agog at the wealth of the place. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, shortly after we moved to nearby Durham, became “discovered” and very quickly tripled in size as wealth – and the people who held it – streamed up and bought expensive new condos overlooking the Piscataqua River. (Generally speaking, the influx of such moneyed people can render a charming place uncharming, which is ironic, as it was the charm that attracted them in the first place; but no matter, once the charm is gone they often fail to recognize its absence.) Admittedly this river, and the boat traffic on it (including very large tankers), is very scenic, and occasionally a yacht will be parked at Portsmouth, or on the Maine side. But the largest of them would be dwarfed by an average sized yacht on the Med. The biggest yacht parked in Nice during our stay was the 73m long Odessa II, its size putting it in the top 5% in the world. Its owner: “Sir Leonard Valentinovich Blavatnik is a Ukrainian-born British-American businessperson and philanthropist. As of October 2023, Forbes estimated his net worth at $29.6 billion. In 2017, Blavatnik received a knighthood for services to philanthropy.” Anyway, anyway, yeah …

A pair of young gypsy girls tried to lift objects out of my shoulder bag. Francesca, rather confused why one was carrying a heavy coat on that warm day, was also confused why one of the girls seemed intent on walking close behind me. Then Francesca noticed a hand extending out of the coat, draped over one girl’s arm. The hand then began to lift the flap of my bag, at which point Francesca began to hurl imprecations at the pair, causing them to cease their dastardly deed. They scurried off. I caught up with them, looked in their backpack. They proclaimed in French that it was all theirs, but the fact they allowed me to search their bag was proof enough that they’d been up to no good. Francesca said her quite loud outburst had attracted the attention of nearby tourists who looked on approvingly at our efforts to thwart the gypsy thievery. (I recently acquired a far more secure shoulder bag from Amazon.)

There was a very pleasant cafe below our apartment at which we often had a cappuccino, orange juice, and a pastry (a combination I on my own discovered was quite pleasant, and only later learned it is a common French repast called, I believe, un francais). A waitress there proclaimed the two of us trés sympathique, which we are, but if your other customers are affiliated with mega-wealth on display near the cafe, well, Francesca and I rather stand out. The waitress had family in Tunisia, and she wanted us to go visit the country with her. I found the idea attractive, but not so much it overwhelmed my doubts and concerns. Nothing came of it.

My final desire for our week in Nice was to traipse to the next town to the west, Villefranche-sur-Mer. This is where Kiki de Montparnasse was arrested a century ago, and where Jean Cocteau had a second home. However, there were two impediments standing in the way of this desired venture. First, “traipsing” was out of the question. The walk there would have required uncomfortable changes in elevation (not requiring technical climbing gear, but …), and at 74, my attitude was “fuck that”. Maybe there was a water taxi? But, come on, let’s be serious. This place was not going to look very much at all as it had when Kiki and Jean haunted it. So, as Francesca is happiest when sitting in a boat out in open water, what about that cruise to Villefranche-sur-Mer. which would allow us to see it fairly close up, and avoid a hike I might have relished 40 years earlier. And that is what we did. (The homes of other, less interesting, luminaries, lined the cliffs … like … well, i can’t remember; I thought Mick Jagger was one, but Francesca says no.)

Il faut tenter de partir

Taxi to train station, and, after much confusion, board TGV to Paris. 4 hours of pleasant French countryside followed, at one point passing by Taizé, “The Taizé Community is an ecumenical Christian monastic fraternity in Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy, France. It is composed of more than one hundred brothers, from Catholic and Protestant traditions, who originate from about thirty countries around the world.” Decades earlier, besotted with the Swiss Miss (in previous writings given the moniker Heidi), I went with her to this place. There was music and singing, and to this day I’ve never encountered anything as haunting. There was a horny young Indian kid who fucked anyone who was willing. And there was the discussion group I decided to join, the intention being to sit outside on the grass and discuss things spiritual. Heidi was busy elsewhere, having come with a purpose, so I was at a loose end. I figured I’d sit unobtrusively at the back of this group and just hang out. (The alternative was to do a silence thing, which I tried for a few hours and, bizarrely, got bored with it.) The first thing my group did was elect a group leader to help focus the discussions.

You know, all my life I have exuded a kind of rebellious, easy-going, laissez-faire (searching for adjectives here; be patient) insouciance that many people less self-assured find compelling. This included the other members of the Taizé discussion group I glommed onto, for I was quickly and unanimously elected group leader, and thereby lost my hoped for unobtrusiveness. I mean, WTF. I hadn’t even spoken, much more than an introduction, anyway, but that evidently was sufficient for my je ne sais quoi to come spilling out.

You know, it’s a pity the society of theoretical physicists did not – over the 40 years I attempted to become anything but unobtrusive in their company … well, whatever the young people at Taizé instinctively saw in me, those pathetically competitive academic dweebs actively resisted my magnetic charms. Rather than embracing my revolutionary physics ideas, they instead – as a herd of fluffy white … uh, sheep … yeah, sheep – they pursued the prevailing idée fixe, which, after 40 years of increasingly desperate attempts to prove it right with even a spec of experimental evidence, was finally widely accepted as wrong. Of course, there was no concomitant mass migration to extant … what? You’re bored? Ok, so we arrive in Paris.

At the Gare de Lyon, rather than wait in a long line for a taxi, some of which were sketchy, we dragged our luggage into the metro, arriving some time later outside our new apartment. Eventually I recalled that instructions as to how to enter could be found on my phone. I coded open the door, and once inside we got the key where the instructions said to look, and moseyed to the elevator. This was big enough for 2 people, or one person and luggage. So it took 2 trips to get us to the 5th floor (3 people could squeeze on board, but although that load could safely rise to floors 1, 2, 3, and 4, it failed to get to 5 by about 8 inches, causing the door to remain closed. The solution was to drop down to 4 and walk up.)

The view from our apartment was rather stunning:

A large percentage of the cathedral had burned a few years earlier, but with the help of French engineering prowess, the damaged bits were being efficiently reconstructed. (As to French engineering prowess, their TGV trains are the equal of ours … uh, wait, the USA has no high speed rail system, because our wealth stays with the wealthy, and although given mouth service every election season, the attitude of this country to infrastructure is: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; and if it falls down, think about fixing it, because … fuck.) It was a joy to sit at our window and watch this progress. (Near the cathedral they had set up a very cool Minecraftian set of offices, each block clearly cleverly wired to the rest; I wish I could build a house that way.)

Our apartment looked down on the Seine, directly across from Notre Dame, with a view of the short, wide bridge from the Left Bank to the cathedral island. We stayed there 2 weeks, and every day, 24 hours a day, something was happening on that bridge. Daytimes brought out the buskers. By midnight it was stray individuals solving the world’s problems on park benches attached to the bridge. Occasionally there was drama, fueled more than once by alcohol. (At 2am one early morning, there were two young women heatedly arguing below our window (was there pushing? Maybe … I think so). Periodically they would both scoff and offensively gesticulate at the other and walk away, only to come charging back shouting a short while later. This happened several times. It was an entrancing performance.)

Notre Dame itself was walled off from the public (the plywood walls covered in educational pictures illustrating what was going on inside, at present, and outside in the past). However … Some context. Keeping my illness at bay requires us to have a morning routine from which I dare not vary. First there is breakfast, during which I take a slew of pills, including one important one. Then I need to wait 2 hours before taking the most important pill quartet, with water. An hour after that I can eat again. So, one Sunday morning, in the midst of the 2 hour wait, with the windows open, we both thought we heard ethereal Gregorian chanting. Francesca briefly wondered if she was really hearing it (ghosts?), but even I heard it (which did not preclude ghosts). It turns out there is a door in the wall around the far side of the cathedral, and every Sunday these chanters are allowed in to do their stuff. There may be services as well, but we couldn’t hear them if so. Anyway, it was a great way to spend the time between pills one day of the week.

Our place was small, replete with windows, places to cook, sleep, shower and poop. But Notre Dame is a major Paris tourist draw, so the apartment size was not surprising. I knew this would mean the immediate area around our apartment would contain little more than shops selling baseball caps with “I ❤️ Paris” on the fronts. I was very very right in this assumption. But here’s the thing, Francesca and I are the kind of nerds that are very much into sci fi, fantasy, and the like. And miraculously, 2 blocks south of the Seine the tourist desert ends sharply, and two blocks of sci fi/fantasy themed little shops begins. (This stuff – graphic novels in particular – is very popular among right thinking French.) It was great. (Entering one shop I showed the guy behind the counter my Multipass, which he immediately recognized. Our nerd creds established, we entered and browsed.)

The non-quiet life

We led a quiet life during those 2 weeks, save for a pair of days during which we gallivanted with Swiss (Heidi and her husband (call him Guy), and their daughter, who was working in Paris in the fashion industry – yay) and Brit friends (Rosie and Rob from Cambridge), who also had a connection to Heidi). Our first day with them I overrode Heidi’s passive aggressive attempts to take the lead, and we all dined at Le Dôme, Francesca’s fav (well, tied with Le Récamier soufflé place). A good time was had by all (supposition here; I managed to sit next to those I knew would be most entertaining).

Earlier we did some moseying together, led by Heidi, who took us to a pleasant neighborhood her daughter had told her about. Heidi had a hankering to go lady shopping with Rosie, and Francesca. Guy, Rob and I dutifully followed around a pretty neighborhood with which Francesca and I were not familiar. Eventually, failing to find the lady shopping sufficiently entrancing, we males bid them adieu, and we pointed to a cafe where they could find us later (with beers). When they finally did, Francesca politely stewing, we all sat and had various liquids. Francesca is a very very adept shopper, and her experience with the other ladies had been excrutiating, a thing she shared with me later in private.

The following day Heidi’s husband went back to CH, and their daughter went back to doing things with younger people. Those that remained got together during the day, but in particular we promised to meet that evening in the Montmartre neighborhood to experience … See, that day was the Summer Solstice, and unbeknownst to Francesca and myself, Paris goes crazy on that day, and particularly at night. The streets of Montmartre were crammed with revelers.

In the late afternoon , Francesca and I laboriously made our way by bus up this big hill, and we found a cafe where we sat in a corner of the outdoor section, ordered drinks, and listened to the loud band across the street (loud bands – some quite good – were everywhere). I was already worn out. Eventually Rob and Rosie and Heidi found us, and I suggested we just stay in this cafe and watch the world go by. But Rob was having none of it, and Heidi hated the music. So Rob led us on a death march to Sacre Coeur, where we did in fact have a great view of the city as afternoon advanced into evening. So …

… keep in mind, almost every street was crammed with people, and at one point we stopped at a crepe stand and acquired nourishment, at which point we noticed a car trying to make its way through the crowd (see above; brown hood at lower right). I haven’t a clue how it got to where it was, but there were hundreds of yards of road ahead of it rendered impassable by hoards of celebrants. Much to my delight, the people in the car were evidently quite entitled, and they were initially intent on making their way through the throng. (“This should be good,” I thought.) But they could not move, and no amount of self importance was going to change that. People began to rest on the hood of the vehicle, at which point they surrendered in dudgeon, backed down a side street and departed, stage left. It was most amusing.

Most of the evening I grumbled (“Was I really that bad?”, I asked Francesca; “Vilely extreme – pissy – awful”, she replied, which still leaves the severity of my mood open to interpretation), save that time we found a lovely Renoir-ish cafe and downed some more beers. At 74, and tired from a long day, at some point – and well after my usual bedtime – I managed to grumble my way into people being willing to depart. (I think by that time we’d all got the idea of this fête: masses of much younger people dancing and cavorting and listening to bands; I found it fascinating, but I am not young, and … you know.) We linked hands in a train and started making our way to the nearest metro, myself in the lead, holding tightly to Francesca (losing any of the rest of the group was of secondary importance to me by then). This was not easy, and at one point I entered into a very dense crowd, which suddenly got much denser, and I could not move. I put an arm out in the needed direction and wedged my way through.

And so we come to the metro stop. I had wondered how the trains got up this high, for Montmartre is quite high. The answer: they don’t. They tunnel through at the level of the city down below, and consequently we had about 30 miles of stairs to climb down to get to the turnstiles and trains. I slept well that night, and although Rob had to drag me through the whole experience, I’m glad he did. It was quite memorable.

Actually quiet

Eventually all foreign friends departed for their homelands, and Francesca and I went about living a life of leisure, involving things we enjoy together. Angelina’s hot chocolate was of course included, as well as 2 or 3 visits to Le Récamier.

During one of these visits we observed an interesting thing. Keep in mind, Le Récamier is semi-fancy, with a wonderful covered area outside where we always sit. When it is our intention to lunch there, we know to dress in our best duds, Francesca’s surpassing mine by a considerable margin. I always felt this was essential, but this time it was proven beyond all doubt. A family of 4 Americans dressed for MacDonald’s entered, and I grimaced. When they were seated, it was not outside with the elites, but in the furthest and darkest corner of the mostly vacant seats inside. Those outside on the terrace were without exception refined, occasionally quite famous. We sat amongst them, luxuriating. On the way to le toilet I noticed that American family, scarcely visible in the shadows. They had children, t-shirts, and … well, one shutters.

One evening we opted for a Japanese restaurant we’d learned was quite nice. We ambled our way through alleys and finally got to the address. Was it open? It didn’t appear to be.

The big door under the sign was locked. To its left was a 4’ high door I took to be for loading stuff to the inside. But there was Japanese script above the door, and … oh, come on, no way. I tried the handle, opened the door, and was greeted with the friendly stares of diners and staff, the diners smiling at our perplexity, and the staff indicating with friendly gestures that we were welcome to enter. We bent down, navigated the stairs under the door, and were led to a bar where seating was still available, albeit cross legged on cushions.

We were treated to a stream of 20 or 30 morsels that were prepared in front of us. Initially quite tasty, by the end I grew tired of the morsels, as they became somehow repetitive. But far worse than that, my 6’2″ gangly Scottish body found our seating arrangements excruciating. When we left, climbing those weird stairs, and squeezing through that micro-door, I spent some time putting my joints back where they belonged. Then we retraced our way home through alleys scenic enough to have become a tourist draw. Well well.

Discovery

As stated, we did a very minimum of site seeing this time. In the past we’d visited the Galeries Lafayette, which is overwhelmingly stunning, and quite the tourist draw. We’d also tried Samaritaine, a Galeries wannabe that was beautiful to behold, but on our second visit was overrun with gormless foreigners. Both these places did a nice job of creating an expansive indoor mall replete with high end shops and a variety of dining options. But we’re Rive Gauche kinds of people, so I did some googling and …

“What are we doing today,” wondered Francesca. “It’s a surprise,” I answered, and indeed it was to be a surprise to me as well. We moseyed down to the nearest metro, got off at the appropriate station, exited, and voilá! Le Bon Marché!

This place is similar in intent to those other two (shopping and dining), but more subdued in a posh sort of way. The shops are great, the dining beyond reproach, and on the ground floor was an unsurpassed grocery store. We spent much time there. Francesca was delighted. I was delighted. It became a home away from home during our last 9 or 10 days. And being more subdued, and Rive Gauche, the clientele were mostly French. We like the French.

But all good things … Our metro cards charged to zone 5, on the last day we wended our way (a short walk) to the nearest RER to the airport, and departed.

The Seacoast New Hampshire area in which we live is not without its charms, but – my cancer permitting – our next trip to EU will be our longest. The Olympics will prevent us from revisiting Paris, but our plans are almost set.

Not without its charms.

Le vent nous portera

With age

May 2023. Our BA flight from Boston to London was late, threatening the comfortable gap we had at Heathrow prior to catching a connecting flight to Turin, but that flight too was late, so we managed to board a very few minutes before they shut the doors and taxied to the runway. The weather in Turin and the surrounding region was forecast to be biblical, and indeed the Italian Gran Prix had been canceled due to flooding, none of the Formula 1 cars being equipped with those cool exhausts that are raised above the vehicle itself, this enabling vehicles so equipped to drive through high water. (Remember my story of driving a VW-Bug through 2.5 to 3’ high water in Zihuatanejo? In that case, to prevent the engine from shutting down due to my exhaust being well below flood level, I had to race through town on roads I could not see. My passengers must have been thrilled.)

A family of Swiss friends (Macé, Lidia, and two sons) trained down from Winterthur to intersect with our stay in Turin a couple of full days. During those days the weather – as mentioned – was frightful. Wind and rain during all of their stay. Fortunately Turin – which Francesca and I had never visited (she had the impression gleaned from some online source that the city was entirely vegetarian; I had my doubts, ultimately well founded) – was plentifully supplied with covered walkways in some of the major shopping areas.

Macé, exercise his mantra, proceeded to death march us through this maze of colonnades. Being 18 years older than Macé, and presumably Lidia, and even Francesca, I grumbled. Still, it was a pleasant visit, as always, and we bid them warm goodbyes as they boarded their train back to Switzerland … at which point the sun came out, and remained out during the rest of our stay. This weather change enabled us to discover Turin’s large piazza by the (very high) river Po. This pleasant space is bordered by several outdoor cafes (my favorite kind), and we spent much time there not death marching over hot coffee and pastries.

Le train nous portera

This trip was our first in which we traveled strictly by train, and it was by train(s?) that we wended our way from Turin to Rapallo, at which place we were picked up and transported to our fav place on the Italian Mediterranean coast. We were looking forward to visiting our favorite restaurant, one we had visited many times before. The owner, Matteo, was one of our fav people in this town. Alas, someone new had purchased the restaurant, and we were told Matteo and his sister were running a new restaurant up in the high hills (small mountains) surrounding the town (which I shall no longer name, as it has so far avoided being despoiled by loathsome people sometimes disparagingly called tourists; Francesca and I are NOT tourists, rather we’re peripatetic residents). The new owners claimed to have no information about exactly where Matteo had gone. Pfft.

We told our friends at the nearby grocery store (where we were recognized and warmly greeted) that Matteo was gone. “Ah, si, Matteo … here is his phone number! He has a new restaurant in the hills.” (Gods I love this town.) We called, explained who we were, much to Matteo’s delight, and made a reservation for the next day. A pleasant lunch was had, one of three during our 2 weeks stay.

We taxied to the restaurant, about 500 feet (152m) above sea level, along very windy roads. Matteo informed us the taxi had likely overcharged us, but he had a suggestion. And as his knowledge of this region was still spotty, he is not to blame for what occurred as a result of following his suggestion. But before that, we had an enormously pleasant meal with an enormously pleasant view down to the Mediterranean from our table. And there were dogs with whom I gained a rapid rapport.

Anyhoo, the meal over, we prepared to depart, this time avoiding the villainous taxi option, and instead decided to walk back to our lodging, for Matteo had heard that in the town up the street from his restaurant there was a path that one could follow back to the coast. Well, that sounded potentially delightful.

The walk up to that town was not without its hazards, as it consisted of what can only charitably be termed a walkway, varying in width between 0 and 12 inches (0 to .3m), and this walkway ran along the edge of a curvy road upon which one frequently encountered careening Italian drivers. (Matteo’s restaurant had no parking, and 5 cars were creatively parked on the street, a hazard to all but those same Italian drivers, who avoided these vehicles with self-assured aplomb.) Still, needing only occasionally to hug the railing running next to the road as some driver flew blithely in our general direction, we made it to the town, the first building encountered being a church, and next to that an opening in the foliage indicating the start of the rumored pathway.

This picture of the pathway puts a light on it that is scarcely deserved. Most of the steps were dissembling; the flint walls along the side were giving up their fight with gravity and dumping shards on many steps; the foliage along the verge had decided, as no one seemed to care anymore, that it would grow out into the way of passersby with complete abandon, most frequently sporting thorns of surprising length and ferocity. The thorns doubtless helped protect the plants from the wild boars we later learned roamed the area.

It was hot; the path seemed endless; Francesca, at the best of times displeased with the habit of raw Nature’s desire to brush up against her, especially if said Nature is painfully pointy, grew increasingly frantic as we descended into this hellscape. I did my best to hold the brutal greenery at bay, but I too found this endless bushwhack walk onerous.

Eventually the horror diminished when we encountered a paved road-like thing. We were still quite far from our ultimate destination, and wearing out rapidly, but for a while we didn’t wish we’d had a machete. Finally the road-like thing met an actual road, albeit still far from home. I was ready to collapse. Francesca was having even less fun. Just about to trudge the remaining miles to the coast on this asphalt, the gods took pity. An automobile approached from uphill, heading downhill. In desperation I stuck my thumb out. The deities monitoring our pathetic progress caused the macchina to stop, and a lovely middle aged Italian couple enquired if we would like a lift and signaled their willingness to have us board. And so it was we cruised the remaining windy miles to town in air conditioned comfort.

We ate at Matteo’s twice more during our stay, each time using a bus. The second time we regaled Matteo with the story of our adventures on his path. He apologized profusely, and we all had a good laugh when I suggested he’d meant us to perish on the path. LOL.

The remainder of our stay was uneventful, consisting of walks along the Mediterranean, occasionally watching the fishing boats come in – like this one – so, yeah, and cafes, walks in town, food shopping, and sitting in our spacious apartment watching the old men on the park benches share stories – one assumes – of old times.

Our whole trip was about 6 weeks, but with each passing year our interest in seeing the sights/sites grows ever smaller. This trip, more than any previous, we relaxed, leisurely melting into the places we visited (Nice and Paris were yet to come). I chatted up a waitress who wore an almost steampunk apron, and she was delighted when I mentioned one of my favorite singers was Biagio Antonacci. She expressed her approval by hitting her fist against her chest, at her heart, with 2 fingers extended. That was such a cool gesture. Pity I’m a goofball and couldn’t respond appropriately.

People recognized we had a routine: breakfast at the cafe next to our apartment; Negronis in the afternoon at the cafe across from the big church; etc. We were attempting to live there, and that changes the way we were perceived. We really love it. We dream of something more permanent, at present rendered unrealistic by the requirement that I visit Boston every 3 months to have my cancer monitored, and by Francesca’s professor position which she really likes. But we dream.

Meanwhile …

The mainstream of theoretical physics becomes with each passing day increasingly ludicrous. They have their wagons circled in the middle of a vast desert, keeping their focus on each other, prisoners of their own inanity.

Je parlera de ce qui est arrivé

Opinions vary, but when has that ever not been true.

Emery Farm porch drinking maple sodas; bi racial gay couple with dog arrives; dog comes to us; they tell us dog’s name; they tell us his pronouns are “he/him” – the dog; they go inside, leaving dog comfortably with us. When they come out again after some minutes, I explain that my pronouns are “Royal We/Royal Us”. Brown guy smiles – “this person made a joke”, he thinks. White guy looks like he’d like to chastise me, probably wondering if I’m cancellable, my evident unwillingness to play his woke game seemingly … well, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”.

Having said that, let’s cement my thinking on socio-political matters by saying I am a big fan of Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Konstantin Kisin, 3 people with brain. Amala Ekpunobi also great. The list goes on.

So, triggered yet? No? Wonderful.

But I’m a creep; I’m a weirdo;

It has been a little over a year since my oncologist told me I have years to live. Three years ago I was told the mean life expectancy for someone like me (“like me” – c’est risible, n’est ce pas?) was 2.5 years. But that supposition rested on the idea that I would not respond well to mitigating efforts. When I did respond well, well …

At the time, during that first week of “Sorry, dude, it’s stage 4 and incurable”, I have etched in my memory standing in a hallway at MGH and, with moist eyes and a quavering voice, expressed my desire to get back to Paris once more. A white coated medic smiled at me and assured me that would be possible.

“Well, uh, that’s nice … but how does that mesh with the …?”

So, since then I’ve been back to Paris, and other fav spots in France and Italy, 3 times. I’ll write about it later. I mean, other people write in mainstream media all the time about travel. In fact, just a few minutes ago Francesca and I had our morning cappuccino and WSJ read (the WSJ is the only news outlet that does not annoy the fuck out of me with slanted political leanings, left and right). There was a travel section – yay. The first article was about the city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Yay again. But, wtf. 50% of the article was all about the author’s feelings as she walked to some old theatre, her description very reminiscent of those gothic novels a friend of ours used to be addicted to. You know the ones: a bare chested pirate or prince looks to the horizon, and a beautiful young woman looks up longingly at his face, one shoulder of her dress being torn in whatever tremulous adventure they’d just experienced. And then it hit me: I’m a 74 year old curmudgeon, and this article is not in any way, shape, or form, aimed at me. This article is a textual selfie, TikTok or Instagram post. The author is the star, Sicily the romantic backdrop. I’m a Boomer. This was aimed at Zs or younger Millennials, not me, at all. My time is over, as is the time of the truly harrowing travels of Henry Morton Stanley, whose account of traveling up the Congo River scared the bejesus out of me as a grad student. THAT was travel! Anyway, so there it is. Still, the last paragraph of the article I found quite pleasing. This was something more than just a selfie; it was an experience, and at the end she managed to pull out an awesome summation involving cultural adaptation and yearning. Well, this was, after all, the WSJ.

What the hell am I doin’ here?; I don’t belong here

While I’m on the subject, Francesca and I went to a Labor Day gathering at the home of a former UNH physics professor. All the other attendees were either former UNH physics people, or their significant others.

One of the attendees was a fellow with a german accent named Jochen Heisenberg. When food was served people broke into two groups to munch their food. Jochen sat to my left. A friend had informed me he was related to the illustrious Werner, but I hadn’t by that point put in my hearing aid, so I missed the explanation of how distantly related Jochen was to Werner. Being me, I asked him. “He was my father,” he replied. WTF! Ok, so I spent a year and a half as a physics adjunct at UNH sharing that space with the son of Werner. However, Werner Heisenberg was never in the running for my fav physicist from that seminal era. Bohr and Pauli were my least favorite; Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Einstein somewhere in the middle; and Dirac, with no close second, by far my favorite. Not a hero, mind you – I don’t do those – but Dirac’s philosophy of science was similar to mine, and my published work builds directly upon Dirac’s.

I mentioned to the younger Heisenberg that I admired Dirac the most. He nodded, accepting the validity of my opinion, it seemed. Then he told me that well after WWII he had gone to a conference with his father. At some point Dirac, having been made aware who Jochen was, wandered over to him and introduced himself. Fascinating. That was uncharacteristically forward of Dirac.

Francesca and I then proceeded to dominate the ensuing conversation, which I gently nudged in a socio-political direction. I felt compelled to do this as the vast majority of academics – this group being no exception – have, as Francesca puts it, drunk deeply of the Woke Kool-Aid, and their socio-political views I felt confident I would find irksome. So I started by saying I was a fan of Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson. Who? Not a single one of these progressive muggles had ever heard of either. And when I explained their podcasts could be found on Youtube, a source of streaming videos including the history videos Francesca and I watch every morning while eating breakfast in bed, one person wondered how that was possible. Is Youtube a TV app? With great effort I refrained from smacking my forehead in frustration. (I mean, really, I may as well have been trying to converse pleasantly with a group of yak herders in Outer Mongolia; no common ground, see? More uncomfortable pauses than actual sharing.) So, assuming they were aware of the intellectual firmament in 1920s Europe, I proceeded to regale them with my encyclopedic knowledge of that decade’s art scene in Paris. That went over better.

Remember in one of my books this gem? As as adjunct physics teacher at Brandeis U, after a particularly lively class, an older student (quite a bit of grey in her hair) came up to me and said, “You don’t belong here.” Indeed. That was a very incisive comment. I did not belong in academia. Still, it would have been somewhat more useful had she explained where I did belong. Other than as Francesca’s husband and soulmate, I’ve found no home on this world. Maybe that’s enough, and always will be.

Mi chiamo 7stones

I have been learning French via DuoLingo for many years. I got to the point where I knew continuing down that path would result in negligible further rewards. I wasn’t going to remember a lot of the somewhat more advanced material it was hitting me with. Furthermore, Francesca and I, my health being sufficient, plan to spend our next EU vacation in Switzerland and Italy. French will not be needed. Still, I didn’t want to give up on French, but I needed to learn more Italian. Brilliant idea: learn Italian on DuoLingo, but with French as the base language. Two weeks in and I am very happy with this switch.

Finally, 7stones.com is my web address, but, in the years since established, other entities in the world have also used 7stones for their internet presence. For example, there is a shipping company in Nigeria, which tacks on an .ng to distinguish it from mine. But the internet is intricate, and not error free. I get frequent emails relating to recent business dealings with this other 7stones. I seldom look at the emails – it’s pretty dry stuff – but I find my inclusion in some of the company’s doings strangely delightful. I should investigate their retirement plan.

Drama Royalty

“By far the most usual way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for serious rearrangement of our preconceptions is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them.”

WILLIAM JAMES

This, to me, is a self-evident truth. But there is a meta-level to this truth: even if everyone in the world recognized its inescapable veracity, that would have a negligible to zero impact on the way in which people lived their lives. Wisdom is vastly overrated, as is the notion that humans have a consciousness, something we periodically trot out as a talking point in regard to machines, and whether they have, or ever will, attain consciousness. Well, if we – a collective of preprogrammed NPCs – have consciousness, then so have some machines. Yeah, uh, so anyway …

I got an email from a friend with whom I attended 2 years of college, and 2 years of graduate school. He’d seen an online eyeball catching CNN article positing that some experimental physicists in Hungary may have found evidence for a 5th force, something for which the wildly successful Standard Model could offer no explanation. He wondered if my work offered an explanation. I replied (Pyrenees is a reference to the mathematician Grothendieck who left his family and career at some breaking point and headed to those mountains to live out his life as a kind of monk; my own personal Pyrenees consists of Paris cafes, whenever I can get to them):

“I settled in the Pyrenees long before I figured out everything that my model could imply or predict.  Everything it does predict (antimatter mirror universe and neutrinos being Dirac fermions) is either well established, or being actively investigated.  If the mainstream ever does agree there is an antimatter mirror universe, my work (2015 paper) will not be referenced.  A wise French Canadian mathematician (another grad school friend) told me that academia is a jungle.  

“Anyway, there is a whole 6-dimensional space connecting my matter and antimatter universes, but it carries SU(3) color charges, and anything passing through it would be completely altered in the passage. Is it possible to transverse through this weird space. No idea. I refuse to leave the peaceful Pyrenees in pursuit of an answer.”

Disappearing from the life of active research is a good way to disappear in reality. In 1993 I organized a workshop in Sweden on octonions in physics, called Octoshop. I did it again in Britain in 2000. A fellow, Tevian Dray, took up this series thereafter – once or twice. I was not invited, and to this day those that are aware of the Octoshops at all are unaware I ever had anything to do with them. TD, evidently, has a vested interest in my disappearance. That was a good start.

Then in the early 2000s a young woman (Cohl Furey) at the Perimeter Institute (the center of the world, for the uninitiated – just ask them) wrote a paper in which she used my ideas, but failed to mention my work beyond a weak footnote that made it seem, to CF, and those advising her, irrelevant. I complained, and my mention achieved something slightly above dismissive footnote status in a subsequent rewrite.

Not too long after that, Quanta Mag, a (once) respected online source of science journalism, cottoned on to her work (a couple of papers by then), and a female on the Quanta staff, delighted that she could extol the virtues of a female physicist doing work, she assumed, at the cusp … well, this Quanta journalist wrote and published an article about CF in Quanta Mag that was an excellent example of apotheosis. As to my two books and close to 30 papers on this very same subject, well, the article proclaimed that I had given up on my ideas in the 1980s having failed to cadge an academic position. Gosh … As I recall I finished my PhD in the 1980s, and then had a series of postdocs, … anyhum. My last paper on this line of research was published in 2018. My best paper in 2015. My 2nd book in 2011. Weird. History rewritten. It was now becoming part of lore. Wired republished the article, putting a layer of concrete over my grave.

My work is based on an algebra that has come to be called the Dixon algebra. And as I first put the thing together, and spent decades uncovering its mathematical oddities and connections to physics, that seems only fitting. Recently an interesting mathematical paper appeared in arXiv:2303.11334. This applied the Dixon algebra in a novel way to a well-known mathematical object, extending it in an interesting way. And the paper did a splendid job of littering its text with mentions of the Dixon algebra, and even applied my name to their new extension (Dixon-Rosenfeld lines). Great, right?

Well, here’s the thing: they referenced my work 5 times, the most recent reference to my 1994 book now published by Springer. The oldest reference was a 1986 paper in Phys Rev D. And nothing more recent. Furthermore, this failure was used to support a contention that I’d given up my work in this field in the mid 1990s. Sigh. And they further averred that work applying the Dixon algebra to physics was “revived” in the first decade of the new millennium by … care to guess? That’s right! CF! Not coincidentally, the authors thanked CF for several fruitful discussions.

In yet another paper appeared this: “Following on from work by Günaydin and Gürsey on the link between quarks, and octonions, and by [CF] on chains of octonionic multiplications, …” Oh, for fucks sake. 20 years before CF entered the picture, I developed and exploited these “chains of octonionic multiplications”.

But there it is. It’s like language. We may resist the ineluctable mutation of our native language under the assault of inventive youths, but resistance is futile. I have always been an oddball in the world of theoretical physics – an outlier. Not one of the gang, with no gang to support my priority to anything. TD now owns the Octoshops. CF is slowly but surely covering everything else of mine with her imprimatur. TD is a kind of Salieri like individual. CF is … you know, I’m borderline elderly now. CF is much younger, and trying to crystallize a life in academia in a field that is greatly diminished since the LHC put the kibosh on a majority of mainstream theoretical notions. I wish CF well in this effort, but she is not also a Salieri figure. I don’t want to think it, but she increasingly comes across as something darker. Machiavelli would be proud. https://youtu.be/GTQlnmWCPgA

Still, she is the only one pursuing work even remotely linked to mine, so, go Cohl! Bonne chance!

Moving on, members of the mainstream are actively investigating the possibility that our universe has an antimatter twin. My 8 year old prediction of this will doubtless form an integral part of this work … or it would do if anyone were aware of it … and if that integral inclusion would not tarnish the reputations of … So, yeah, academia is a jungle. https://arxiv.org/abs/1407.4818

Tony Smith once told me he likened himself to Beethoven, and me to Mozart. Well, thanks Tony, but this is a version of Mozart who has no acolytes, nor anyone interested in promoting his work. Defenseless, the jackals gather around, sniffing for weakness, growling … Bad dogs! (At the time I mentioned to Tony that I could hum some works of Beethoven, but none of Mozart.)

Today is 2023.05.11, a few weeks after the above was written. And truth be told, I wrote that more as a kind of self therapy, with no real plan to publish it. But tomorrow CF is slated to give a zoom talk on the Division Algebras and the Standard Model. If she pisses me off, I may in fact post this blog. Maybe.

On the other hand, maybe not. Among the small group of people who devote themselves to the role the division algebras play in the design of our physical reality, I am evidently becoming increasingly invisible, but that small group – while not completely invisible in the big picture – manages to make only the most ghostly and evanescent of presences in that big picture. Why should I be concerned that my presence is indiscernible in that barely visible smudge. The word quibbling comes to mind; as does the word querulous; as does the combination, “querulously quibbling”, and , I suppose, “drama queen”.

So, anyhum, if perchance this is published, and someone reads it, it is for reasons outlined below, and presently, not in possession of all the facts, (“Just the facts, ma’am”), what those reasons may be are mysterious to me, other than they will have given rise to querulous quibbling.

[Next day] So, yeah, she gave her talk. It was nice. On the other hand, although she’s the only person left in the world doing anything remotely like what I was doing, when I was doing stuff, if the approach she limned in her talk is correct, then I was rather an idiot in those days when I was doing my stuff.

She welcomed the youngsters out there, who’ve more recently begun to think the octonion algebra is a worthy direction of study, into the fold, but added a caveat that this study direction has proven historically to be an impediment to cadging a sinecure in academia. She herself has been hanging on by her postdoctoral fingernails for several years (or so I assume). I hope she manages to hang on for several more. She’s well short of the age at which I gave up the ghost, and from my new perspective, at a heavenly height above it all, was able to look down and say, “Oh, shit, that whole milieu is vapid dreck!”

Something must be said about the other speakers in this lecture series. Some few are senescent, dredging up work they’d done 30 to 50 years ago, adding a word about how maybe octonions could be incorporated. The most prominent of these was Roger Penrose. (He referenced me once, in a large tome on the shape of physics. But it was not a positive reference. His twistors, at least at that time, relied solely on the complex numbers, and he suggested that those trying to incorporate the higher dimensional division algebras into explanations of the design of reality were misguided. My first book was so referenced.)

I watched Roger’s whole talk on zoom. It consisted of almost an hour of slides I’d seen before – maybe close to 40 years before. Having been offered an audience, however, and, like many of his prominent cohorts, totally addicted to regaling a noncritical audience on the glories of their pasts, he filled us in on his stunning youth. And then – irony recognized – he briefly outlined how octonions could be shoehorned into his work.

The next speaker is 84 year old Stephen Adler. I always admired his work on quaternions, but the title of this new talk doesn’t interest me, so I won’t be letting it intrude on my upcoming EU vacation.

Two notes to finish off. Peter Woit recently mentioned in a blog that Stanley Deser had died. He was a listener to my PhD oral defense. He grumbled about it being overly algebraic, but I got through anyway. I ran into him by accident in Göteborg, Sweden, during Octoshop I. We recognized each other, nodded hello, then disappeared from each other’s lives. His wife was Swedish.

Another professor at that university, Marc Grisaru, is now an Emeritus. He it was who tried to get me kicked out of the PhD program because I had negligible interest in his idée fixe, supersymmetry (yes, the same supersymmetry that the LHC had failed to find any evidence of). So, Marc, I see you still list yourself as actively involved in SS. How’s it going? Good? Found a way around its many failings? Good, good …

Incidentally, after Cohl’s talk I sent Tejinder Singh, a co-organizer of the octonion lecture series, an email:

“I consider it a huge lapse that more mention of Murat Günaydin was not made, especially in regards to the exceptional Jordan algebra.  After Gürsey surrendered his work on octonionic SU(3), Günaydin carried on with his own investigations for decades.  I have a box of his papers in a closet, from the days when paper was the only format.

https://inspirehep.net/authors/1007253

Part of the narrative of this present lecture series is that CF initiated interest in the field with her few papers. Not that they’re bad papers – they’re not – but my work, and that of Günaydin, predates hers by decades, and continued on for 2 decades after her initial foray into the field. To justify that narrative, however, it would be necessary to limit mention of those whose work would render the narrative null. She did mention the “Dixon algebra” (begrudgingly? Maybe. Maybe I was being over sensitive.), and she did list one reference: my 1994 book, highlighting the fact that I was old news. (You know, I didn’t seriously think of giving up on academic dreams until January, 2000, at which time I was co-teaching a course at Harvard with Sheldon Glashow. But it would be 18 more years before I stopped working on, and publishing, my stuff. And gol durn it and fuck it, I am going to publish this, for the sake of putting history somewhat right, for me, and the 1 or 2 people who ever read my … my … not sure what to call this. Let’s stick with querulous quibbling.)

Credit, where due

During my lengthy peripatetic life in academia I never once had a permanent position. As a consequence, for the two Octoshops I organized it was necessary, in each case, to enlist the aid of people who did have strong relationships with institutions that could host the bloody things. In 1993 that was Martin Cederwall in Göteborg, Sweden. Martin’s introduction of the octonion X-product is a beautiful, and underrated piece of mathematics.

In 2000 the Octoshop was hosted by Tony Sudbery at the University of York, but he handed the actual organizational work to his graduate student (or was she a postdoc?) Christine Barton. Tony and Christine worked together on the Magic Square. Their worked is still frequently referenced.

The point is, although I got the (golf) ball rolling in each case, without cups to roll into in Sweden and England, nothing would have come of my Octoshop dreams.

Le Design de Tout 02

No, really, where is all the anti-matter?

https://arxiv.org/abs/1407.4818

Goings on 01

Francesca, my adorable super talented tenured professor wife, started her Spring semester today (2023.01.17). Well, that’s not quite right. She’d already “started” working from home, getting all her obstreperous ducks in a row, but she did manage some thoroughly down time when we went to Naples, FL, for 4 days to visit her elderly uncle and aunt. They are wonderful people; the weather was warmish each day, and a little fuggy; and the pace of life, but not the temperature, was glacial.

Burnouts and disappointments 01

Of Georg Cantor’s thoughts on infinity and set theory, “the great mathematician Henri Poincaré, said.. that Cantor’s mathematics was a sickness from which one day maths would recover. And worse… His one time friend and teacher, Kronecker… said that Cantor was a corrupter of youth. Cantor felt that he and his ideas were being caged, or quarantined here as if they were some kind of sickness.

“By May of that year [look it up], he has a massive nervous breakdown. His daughter describes how his whole personality is transformed. He will rant and rave, and then fall completely and uncommunicatively silent. Eventually, he’s brought here… to the ‘Nervenklinik’ in Halle, which is…an asylum. Today, we would say Cantor suffered from manic depressive illness. From Cantor’s time, we have left, the case notes of most of his psychiatrists. In the notes for example, we see that he, at times, was quite disturbed, was screaming… and see that he was really suffering from… severe bouts of mania.”

Goings on 02

I must say, that getting into the swing of life in Naples, FL, was no walk in the park for me. After two days I was craving the crisp cold air of NH, and the presence of a population most of whose citizens understood that an automobile’s righthand pedal was for acceleration, a fact of which they highly approve, and put to good use. One grows weary, after a time, of watching elderly pedestrians with walkers pass one by on the highway. It tears at the very fabric of what I think of as reality.

Still, I managed to body surf in the Gulf of Mexico a little. Here’s proof:

Well, it would be proof had not this annoying pedestrian walked in front of Francesca’s iPhone while she filmed me mid-ride.

Burnouts and disappointments 02

“Just as Cantor had revolutionary ideas in mathematics and was opposed, so Boltzmann, his contemporary, had revolutionary ideas in physics, and was equally opposed. This is Ludwig Boltzmann’s grave. And that…carved on it, is the equation which killed him. And it did so, because like Cantor… Boltzmann’s ideas were out of step with his times.

“In 1906, Boltzmann came here to Duino, with his wife and daughter on holiday. Exhausted and demoralized, his ideas still not accepted. While they were out walking, he killed himself, and left no note of explanation.”

“Wilhelm Ostwald, one of Boltzmann’s colleagues from his time in Leipzig, wrote an obituary for Boltzmann in which he lamented that science demanded so much of its practitioners. ‘This falls under the laws,’ wrote Ostwald, ‘to which almost all servants of the strict goddess Science are subject: their lives end in grief, and this all the more likely, the more completely they have dedicated their lives to Her.’”

Goings on 03

So, as I say, this is Francesca’s first day of the Spring semester. She has risen high in her department (chemistry), just below the department head, who plans to surrender that onerous position at the end of this semester. No one else in the department wants the position once it is vacated, so, as a last resort, they’re bringing in an outsider to fill the post. There are a couple of candidates, and Francesca is required to interview them to determine if she can stomach either as her boss in the 23/24 academic year. You know, it’s understandable that no one internal wants the position. And these outsiders are undoubtedly viewing this post, as annoying as it might be, to be a chance to leave wherever they presently are for a well respected New England university with an excellent STEM reputation.

Burnouts and disappointments 03

Kurt Gödel’s story is not atypical. “Incompleteness began to eat away at his own beliefs about the nature of mathematics. His health began to deteriorate, and he began to worry about the state of his mind. In 1934, he had his first breakdown. But it was after he recovered, however, that his real troubles began, when he made a fateful decision. Almost as soon as Gödel has finished the Incompleteness Theorem…

“he slowly starved himself to death.”

He completed this process at the Princeton IAS, where he became a close friend of another great mind hiding out at that institution, Einstein. One assumes Einstein would have made efforts to bring Gödel out of his paranoid darkness, but alas, his efforts, whatever they may have been, failed.

Goings on 04

So, Francesca and I have breakfast in bed (this being a school day, it was prepared by me, consisting of smoked salmon, tea, and a variety of fruits). To keep things calm – or so I thought – I made the mistake of putting the TV on YouTube, selecting one of several “LoFi Girl” animations with their soothing music. Why was this a mistake? Because it made Francesca completely lose track of time, and an hour before she needed to, she got up in a panic and started putting herself together. Having done so, she faced me, as usual, awaiting my assessment of her outfit. Her school outfits are always quite a few levels above her cohorts, and this morning’s outfit was no exception, generating a kind of Egyptian queen vibe. Not frightening, but definitely authoritative, and very chic. It was good. (Occasionally, being an aficionado of things fashion myself, I’ll suggest a change, but this is rarely needed). Anyhum, she’s now dressed, hoping she’s in time, looks at the clock and discovers she has an hour left. Lofi Girl strikes again. I am forbidden from putting on anything but news henceforth, the news metronomically ticking away the time with some accuracy. We both like Lofi Girl, with her cat, stuffed animals, computer backpack, and laptop, but she’s just too soothing for a work day.

Burnouts and disappointments 04

“So when in March 1952, [Alan Turing] was arrested, charged and found guilty of engaging in a homosexual act, the authorities decided he was a problem that needed to be fixed. They would chemically castrate him by injecting him with the female hormone estrogen.

“On the 7th of June 1954, Turing was found dead. At his bedside, an apple… from which he had taken several bites. Turing had poisoned the apple, with cyanide. Turing was dead …”

Fucking Vogon Brits. Never-mind his brilliant code breaking efforts during WWII that helped the Vogons avoid being overrun by Adolf’s minions. And recently a film was made about Turing and this work. He was evidently portrayed well, and glamorously, but in an unbelievable oversight the film completely ignoring the barbaric treatment he received at the end by his countrymen. I will never watch that film. Bloody fuchsia hell.

Goings on 05

This being an every other Tuesday I had lunch with a cluster of people who, like myself, were once affiliated with the University of New Hampshire. One still is. UNH is just down the road from our house, and my ability to cadge an adjunct teaching position there when we moved to New Hampshire was what enabled me to pay the mortgage for the first year and a half.

This cluster of people range in age from about 57 to 92, so I’m right in the middle. My time at UNH was relatively short, so when they all talk about the good old days, I am usually at a loss.

Burnouts and disappointments 05

“Ernst Stueckelberg developed the vector boson exchange force model as the theoretical explanation of the strong nuclear force in 1935. Discussions with Pauli [an arrogant bastard, IMO] led Stueckelberg to drop the idea, however. It was rediscovered by Hideki Yukawa, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1949 — the first of several Nobel Prizes awarded for work to which Stueckelberg contributed, without recognition.

“He suffered mental health problems and was given the treatment which was common at that time, namely administered electric shocks. Although the problems continued to recur, Stueckelberg was able to carry out his duties. A few months before his death the struggle was becoming too much for him. He said:- ‘I look forward every day to my eventual journey to Heaven … We live too long …’”

“‘The new ‘spin’ was a bit of a comeuppance for Pauli. He’d started out the year, after his usual Christmas holiday in Vienna with his parents, by stopping on his way back to Hamburg at a small university in southern Germany. There, he’d been approached by a young physicist who thought he’d come up with a good idea to explain the two-handedness of the electron: spin. Pauli ridiculed the idea and so deflated the young scientist that he never showed his paper to anyone else.”

— The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition, and Science by Sheilla Jones

A few of my quotes are from Sheilla’s book, by far my favorite book on those heady years. This quote makes me wonder how many bright young minds Pauli quashed via his knee jerk negativity. By the way, the “comeuppance” referred to above pertains to a pair of theorists at Leiden independently attributing spin to the electron. Evidently they did not consult Pauli on the viability of the idea, and it was soon broadly adopted. Of course, theoretical physics being the circus sideshow that it is, the idea is often attributed to Pauli.

Goings on 06

It is now a day later. Francesca and I are seated at our favorite cafe, both with laptops open before us. We’ve finished lunch. I had fried eggs, sourdough toast and bacon, because Francesca likes to steal half the bacon. She had a bowl of some vegetable matter. While eating I got out my Kindle and read a chapter of the latest Brunetti mystery to which I am addicted. At one point Brunetti’s wife, Paola, feeling that her husband’s company is beginning to grate, tells him to go away. “Watch television”, she tells him. “I hate television”, he replies. “Then come help me with the dishes.” The ever resourceful Brunetti replies, “I love television.”

Brunetti and Paola are Italians living in Venice. Donna Leon, the author, is an American, but lived for several decades in Venice. Her sense of humor is wry and wonderful.

Burnouts and disappointments 06

“From the correspondence with his close friends, from May 1931, it appears that Paul Ehrenfest suffered from severe depression. By August 1932, Einstein was so worried that he wrote to the Board of the University of Leiden, expressing deep concern and suggesting ways in which Ehrenfest’s workload could be reduced.

“Having made arrangements for the care of his other children, on 25 September 1933, in Amsterdam, Ehrenfest fatally shot his younger son Wassik, who had Down syndrome, then killed himself.”

Ehrenfest attended the 1927 Solvay conference and was a contributor to the founding of quantum mechanics, an activity that never resulted in the rewards he craved. He’s third from the left in the back in this photograph. I’m seated on the ground in the front, my participation in that conference is little known.

Goings on 07

Speaking of Europe, as mentioned in several previous episodes, Francesca and I plan once again to wend our way to Italy and France this May/June. It now looks like this: 5 days Turin; 2 weeks Santa Margherita; 5 days Nice; 2 weeks Paris. We’re going to attempt to do this without a car this year. The wisdom of that decision is unclear.

Airbnbs for the first three locations have been arranged. I am feeling rather chuffed, and hope that in 5 days when my cancer gets a look-see at Mass General that my general feeling of optimism will be rewarded. [It was.]

Burnouts and disappointments 07

Freeman Dyson once said: “Some mathematicians are birds, others are frogs. Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.”

Alexander Grothendieck, in everyone’s estimation, was a bird, brilliantly excelling in abstraction, but often perplexed by the frog’s eye view.

“Grothendieck worked in a very very (often unnecessarily) general and abstract framework which is enough to make any mathematician ‘swept away’ (according to Pierre Deligne).”

This tendency to abstraction was a pathology for which there was no cure.

“One striking characteristic of Grothendieck’s mode of thinking is that it seemed to rely so little on examples. This can be seen in the legend of the so-called ‘Grothendieck prime’. In a mathematical conversation, someone suggested to Grothendieck that they should consider a particular prime number. ‘You mean an actual number?’ Grothendieck asked. The other person replied, yes, an actual prime number. Grothendieck suggested, ‘All right, take 57.’ But Grothendieck must have known that 57 is not prime, right? Absolutely not, said David Mumford of Brown University. ‘He doesn’t think concretely. … He never really worked on examples,’ Mumford observed. ‘I only understand things through examples and then gradually make them more abstract. I don’t think it helped Grothendieck in the least to look at an example. He really got control of the situation by thinking of it in absolutely the most abstract way possible. It’s just very strange. That’s the way his mind worked.”

And that way of thinking eventually led to a kind of psychological break with reality.

“For the last two decades of his life he broke off with the maths community, his wife, a later partner and even his children. He sought total solitude in the village of Lasserre in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Here he wrote remarkable self-analytical works on topics ranging from maths and philosophy to religion.”

Most writers on that period of his life are generous in their understanding, seemingly providing him immunity to labeling him gonzo at the end. However, my reverence for his work, with which I have something barely above zero familiarity, leads me to a harsher conclusion. He was, I suspect, never entirely all there … but I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. But during those last 20 years he was definitely gone, despite having a physical abode.

Gandalf

But who am I to say? It’s complicated. Personally, I gave up my pursuit of truth in theoretical physics because I knew I was headed for the Pyrenees. I will go to my grave convinced that my “ideas [are] out of step with [my] times.”

Many prominent mathematicians and theoretical physicists ended their lives peacefully. People like Bohr, Schrödinger, Dirac and Einstein, received enough acclaim during their lives to keep their minds intact, their egos inflated. But what about Gödel and Grothendieck? They too received ample recognition during their working years, and yet … Abstraction was the serpent in their Eden. They bit – bit very very hard – and eventually they were expelled from Eden into some place less nice. (On the other hand, Grothendieck doesn’t look unhappy in that photo. On the other other hand, had he been so changed by that point that this was a new person? On the other other other hand, was this a better person, more content?)

Il y a plus

“German scientist Julius Mayer actually came up with the notion of conservation of energy a few years earlier than either Helmholtz or Joule, but he was working as a Dutch ship’s doctor in the West Indies and was seriously out of the loop. Mayer, upset that his work remained unappreciated by the science community, tried to commit suicide in 1849 by jumping out of a third-storey window, but he succeeded only in breaking both his legs. He ended up a cripple in an insane asylum.”

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Louis Bachelier

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Marco Tavoro Ph.D. posted this on LinkedIn: Ettore Majorana was a brilliant physicist who mysteriously vanished in 1938.

According to the renowned physicist and Nobelist Enrico Fermi: “There are [many] categories of scientists; those of 2nd or 3rd rank […] never get very far. Then there is the 1st rank, those who make important discoveries […].

But then there are the geniuses, like Galileo and Newton. Majorana was one of these.” Indeed, according to colleagues, his grasp of physics was almost unrivaled.

He published his first paper as an undergrad. A flurry of important papers followed. However, according to the CERN Courier Magazine, “[He was] a genius who looked on his work as completely banal: once a problem was solved, [he] did his best to leave no trace of his brilliance.”

At some point in his life, he started to suffer from nervous exhaustion, became a hermit, and shut himself off from the world. Theories about his disappearance abound: suicide, fleeing to South America, entering a monastery, kidnapping or murder, etc.

Fermi told his wife, “Ettore was too intelligent. If he has decided to disappear, no one will be able to find him.”

[It appears he ended his days in Venezuela, his own personal Pyrenees.]

Like Grothendieck, this old man does not look unhappy.

[This is probably not Majorana. Someone compared this face to Majorana as a young man. Still, this guy looks does look happy. I need to believe Majorana was happy, too.]

[From the web: “He was not killed, nor did he commit suicide, much less shut himself up in a convent. Ettore Majorana, world-famous physicist, who grew up in the atomic study center in via Panisperna, in Rome, placed by some experts between Newton and Einstein, disappeared mysteriously in 1938, was alive in the period 1955-1959 and lived in Venezuela, in the city of Valencia. This was ascertained by the Rome prosecutor’s office which, after opening a file in 2011 on the scientist’s disappearance, has now asked for it to be dismissed.” Yay.]

Cafe closing soon

I’m reasonably content with this blog, but have no idea what to write about next. Maybe I’ll just put together some happy encounters with local canines.

J’ai fini pour l’instant.

Happy encounter with local canine.